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Principals Don’t Have Huge Impact on Grades, According to New Study

A young girl studies on a lightly blue desk at what appears to be a school.
(Image credit: Photo by Jason Sung on Unsplash)

A school principal may not have a huge influence on the grades of students at that school, suggests a new and potentially seismic preprint study published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. 

The study (opens in new tab), which has not yet been peer-reviewed, challenges the efficacy of traditional measurements of principal impact on student success and suggests that the role a principal plays in such success is much smaller than generally believed. However, Brendan Bartanen, the study’s lead author, stresses that it does not indicate principals don’t matter. 

“They are largely in charge of what's going on inside schools, and they definitely matter,” says Bartanen, a professor of Education Policy at the University of Virginia. “The takeaway from this study is that they matter, but perhaps in ways that you're not going to easily observe through what happens in terms of student outcomes.” 

What The Study Found  

Traditionally, a principal’s impact on student academic success is evaluated using value-added or growth measures. For these calculations, a prediction for each student’s future success is made based on their past performance and economic background, such as whether or not they qualify for a reduced-price lunch. Teachers and principals are then evaluated on how much better or worse the average student does versus this prediction. 

To see if measuring the “value-added” at a school under a principal was an effective metric, Bartanen and his co-authors looked at data from Tennessee, New York City, and Oregon. All schools see variations in student success, but if that variation was attributable to principals the expectation would be that the schools that had the same principal for extended periods of time would see less variability. In addition, schools that switched principals should see more variability. However, the researchers did not find either to be the case. 

“Even among principals who have been in the school for a long time, we still see lots of ebbs and flows in school performance,” Bartanen says. “Test scores are going up, and they're going down. They follow this sort of back-and-forth type pattern. And it doesn't seem like that pattern is driven by whether or not the school changed principals or anything like that, it seems to operate independently of who's leading the school.”

The Study’s Implications  

This study’s findings need to be further analyzed by other researchers, but its potential implications are significant. 

Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of Education & Economics at Brown University, called the paper a “must read” in a Tweet (opens in new tab). “Once in a long while a paper comes along and (credibly) upends an entire literature,” he wrote. “This is one of those papers, calling into question both the empirics & consensus about research on principal effectiveness.” 

Bartanen hopes the study will help shift the metrics used to gauge principal effectiveness from grades to the principals’ impact on hiring policies, budgeting, and the school’s overall feel. He’d like to see rubrics that cover the main tasks for which principals are responsible. “Are they establishing a positive climate?” he asks. “Are they managing the resources effectively? Are they budgeting well? Are they engaging in what we would say are strong instructional leadership behaviors – so are they providing teachers with coaching?” 

In the meantime, Bartanen does not want his research misinterpreted as disparaging the work principals do. “Principals are really important,” he says. 

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.